Soft music playing and pencil scratching, the window’s light was warming my back as I focused on staying as still as possible. My bedroom had been turned into a little artist’s studio, with white sheets hanging from the ceiling and pieces of charcoal covering my rug. I was completely naked, sitting in a wooden chair that had been given to my roommates and me as we furnished our first apartment. I tried to pose like I had pictured I was going to before the experience began. But when the moment came for me to be drawn naked, I wanted nothing more than to be completely covered and sit in the least sexy way possible. I went into the experience more confident than I should have been because although I knew Lee Ryan had seen hundreds of naked people, I did not realize how daunting the experience was actually going to be. As I sat in the chair focusing on sucking in my stomach and not moving a muscle, I watched Ryan draw me. Tapping her foot lightly to the background music, she drew me effortlessly. Glancing up at me every few moments for reference while quickly finishing her first sketch, I realized this was something she genuinely loved to do.
I chose Ryan for this piece for many reasons. Among them was her ease and relaxing nature that is apparent not only in her personality but also in her artwork. She showed up to my house to draw me wearing cut off denim shorts, a black tank top with a chocolate chip banana bread muffin on it, and her light purple hair thrown up in a bun. Clearly the whole thing didn’t phase her. Like most artists, her artwork means much more than what appears on the paper. Ryan’s artwork is about healing. Recently battling crippling anorexia, Ryan hopes to continue to help herself through recovery, but also help mend the body image issue that affects so many people.
Going in and out of treatment centers and suffering through years of hatred for her body, Ryan found refuge in her artwork. Drawing since she was young, she had never found a subject she really enjoyed, but when she had to create a portfolio for her senior year AP art class she found her calling.
“Looking through images of bodies and faces and finding myself really connect with the imperfections and perfections that I saw in all of them, I knew I wanted to create images based on people and I think that definitely stemmed from my eating disorder,” Ryan recalled. “I found myself being able to wrap my suffering into something that I could actually see visually and that’s when my art really became.”
Her portfolio is called “The Perception of Beauty” and is filled with pieces concentrated on society’s idea of flaws. Her portraits are of different sized and shaped people with wrinkles, scars, rolls, stretch marks and disabilities – each ringing true to her message that every person is beautiful. “It sounds so cliché but I really do think everyone is beautiful. Part of my healing process was realizing this, and once I did, it became my mission to try and make aware every person of their beauty despite the ‘imperfections’ they may have. My art is part of the movement to break down the standards people’s bodies are held to.”
After her first sketch was finished, Ryan asked me if I wanted to change poses. I awkwardly moved myself around to sit in the chair a different way. Pulling out her charcoal she began to sketch me out a different time. Ryan smiled a little as she hummed, and the self-consciousness I had felt at the beginning began to wear away. The experience became almost meditative, and when Ryan asked if I needed a break to move around I declined. Beginning her third sketch of me, she leaned up against my wall and said in a soft voice, “Remember when you see these they’re just the sketches and they aren’t perfect, but you are.”
Every artist has an environment they like to create in, for Ryan it’s being around people. Whether they are chatting in the background or posing for her, she feeds off their energy, another telling feature of her personality. With her friendly aura and insatiable smile it is hard to not enjoy being around her, and once you’ve met her, her art really makes sense. It is uncommon for a young artist to be able to portray beauty in the way Ryan does. Her undeniable talent makes the piece possible but her own struggle and understanding of beauty is what really creates her art.
I originally wanted to write this piece because I wanted to see how someone else saw me. Like any other woman, I have insecurities. But in the moment I saw the piece Ryan created of me, all of those insecurities were wiped away. She captured the essence of my being on a piece of paper, something I did not expect to happen. Ryan’s artwork may be a healing tool for herself, but I can now say it has helped heal me too. Being drawn naked is initially a scary experience; exposing yourself is not easy, especially when we live in a society that is so apprehensive of the human body. Ryan’s piece shows me not only in my physical form but also for who I am as a person, something I never thought to be possible. Her talent is radiant like her soul, and her artwork is more than just art.
With a message as her mission, Lee Ryan is proving beauty is in everyone — one naked person at a time.
*This article first appeared in the November 2016 issue of The Yard.